Mark Gresham | 02 APR 2019
The Atlanta Opera is halfway through its eight show run of Astor Piazzolla’s María de Buenos Aires. The first week’s four performances of the tango operita all sold out. Of this week’s final four, Saturday is sold out, while the Thursday and Friday evening and Sunday matinee performances are threatening to do the same. EarRelevant ws present for this past Froday’s performance at La Maison Rouge inside Paris on Ponce, the same East-side burlesque lounge where the company first mounted a production of the tango operita in February 2017..
María de Buenos Aires was a sell-out hit in that first production by TAO. General and artistic director Tomer Zvulun immediately recognized a demand for a reprise, so scheduled it again as part of this season’s Discoveries Series.
It proved worth repeating, not only for the box office but artistically. The 2017 production was good, but this María is stronger, more resilient than the one two years ago. That Zvulun also directed it at New York City Opera in between, in November of last year, gave him more hand-on experience for refining and honing the work, making changes that clarified and intensified the production.
What was observed in last Friday’s performance was less a surreal story – as it is often described – and more powerfully allegorical one. The greater clarity in this iteration cannot be overstated. The songs and dance passages, well stenciled, stand out well in the own right, and the story line of Horacio Ferrer’s libretto flows more easily, making it much more comprehensible. If there was one shortcoming that stood out, it’s that the voices were over-amplified, drawing attention to the fact of amplification itself, rather than providing just enough presence to give illusion of non-amplification without allowing the voices to be lost in the alternative venue’s acoustics.
This time María was portrayed by Armenian-Argentinean mezzo-soprano Solange Merdinian who brought a more nuanced performance to the role than soprano Catalina Cuervo did in the the previous production, and who was herself on-target in the part and has performed it perhaps more than any other singer. Merdinian’s voice may not be as smoky, but her lower-range notes were rock-solid and she brought a more realistic, three-dimensional presentation to the Everywoman role. She gave us a María who was not merely a victim of culture, but also seemed to get a kick out of the shadowy bohemian nightlife she was leading in Act One, prior to her death at the Act’s conclusion. The deceased María’s shadow took her place in Act Two.
Equally essential to this production’s strength was the physical presence and big, impressive voice of Argentinean-American baritone Gustavo Feulien as El Payador – a singer and improviser of payadas, or folk songs, who is Maria’s spiritual and physical lover in life and death. Likewise new to this iteration were choreographer-dancers Analia Centurion and Jeremias Fors who ably bore the focus of tango dance segments.
Returning from the 2017 production was actor and tango singer Milton Loayza, who again effectively rounded out the trio of principal roles as El Duende – a goblin-like spirit whose powers cause the young to forget their way home, cannily portrayed as a charismatic bartender. Also returning were conductor Jorge Parodi, Argentinean bandoneón player Daniel Binelli and pianist Polly Ferman who headed up an ensemble of musicians drawn from the Atlanta Opera Orchestra.
The immersive staging took place on three sides of the audience, as wells in between the tables on the main floor where where a good number of the audience was seated – the intent being to emulate a Buenos Aires tango bar. The balance of the audience was seated on the fourth side of the room, in rows of chairs on risers which, while not on the middle of the action like the tables, offered excellent sight lines for the entire. The orchestra performed behind draped scrim material at the back of the thrust stage that was across the room from the bar, with Parodi seated to the side in front of the scrim where he could easily be seen. It was a much better setup for the clarity of sound of the orchestra than was recalled from the 2017 performances.
While on the surface María can be viewed as an individual character, she is really an archetype of the many young women of Argentina and Uruguay who escape their impoverished villas miseria of the provinces, seduced by the tango and the allure of Buenos Aires’ nightlife and underground culture, hoping for something if not better then at least different and more exciting among the “porteños,” the city dwellers, only to be trapped in a different social miseria of urban poverty, prostitution and suffering.
The more important, darker piece of allegory is that while it is María’s ghost that walks the city’s streets in Act Two, her tragic specter also represents the shadow of Buenos Aires itself, its society and its neglected, repressed collective values. In the end, the story offers an absolution of sorts, for in death María’s virginity is restored, then her spirit becomes pregnant and miraculously gives birth to a girl – perhaps herself, perhaps another like her – and the opera ends as the ironic social cycle begins again with a new generation. ■